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Port today is a sweet fortified wine that is high in alcohol due to the addition of a neutral spirit during fermentation. After fermenting for two or three days, the grape must (the half-finished wine) receives a dose of neutral spirit distilled from grapes. The fortification stops fermentation by killing the active yeasts while leaving some of the unfermented sugars. The level of sweetness varies according to the shipper's house style, but the alcohol level is generally about 20 percent.
In Portugal, the origins of the Port trade began in the 17th century, when wars with France deprived the British and Dutch of French wines. Both ventured up the rugged Douro River Valley for wines, but it wasn't until the mid-18th century, when brandy was added to the traditional wines of the region to stabilize them for their journey across the seas, that modern Port began to take form.
Port is made all over the world, including America, Australia and South Africa. However, true Port is made in northern Portugal from grapes grown in the upper Douro Valley, about 100 miles east of the town of Oporto. Traditionally the grapes are harvested in the Douro and made into Port there, but the maturation is done in warehouses in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River from Porto. Firms such as Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Graham all have facilities in Gaia.
Port cannot be compared to any other wine in the world. It originates from remote vineyards that have little in common with the well-manicured vines of Bordeaux, and is made under conditions that most high-tech winemakers in California or Australia would consider a mockery of enology.
The Douro is one of the most difficult wine-producing regions in the world. The climate is tough and uncertain. Summers are blistering hot, while winters can be frigid. The topography is rugged and desolate. The soil crumbles to a fine powder that can choke those working in the vineyards. Growing vines in certain areas is like trying to establish vineyards in parts of the Grand Canyon. But somehow vines flourish along the steeply terraced banks of the Douro River and its tributaries.
Regardless of where it is produced, Port (or Porto, as the true Portuguese product is labeled in the United States) is made in two styles: wood-aged and bottle-aged. Wood-aged Ports include such styles as white, ruby, tawny, vintage-character and late-bottled vintage (LBV), as well as old tawnies and colheita (vintage-dated) tawnies. These wines are aged in cask, sometimes for many decades; they are filtered before bottling and ready to drink when released.
White Port is made from a range of white grape varieties grown in the Douro Valley. It is made in the same way as a red Port, and consumed primarily as an aperitif or a mixer. White Port is popular in Europe but rare in the United States.
Ruby Ports are red, young, fruity wines, while a standard tawny is lighter in color and softer in flavor. Both are usually bottled when about three years old. The main difference between the two is that ruby Ports are made from darker, richer wines while tawnies are made from lighter ones.
A vintage Port is similar to a standard ruby but made from even richer, more powerful wines. Late-bottled vintage, by comparison, is a premium ruby made from a single vintage, aged in wood for four to six years to approximate the intensity of vintage Port. Some LBVs are filtered before bottling and do not benefit from further aging; better LBVs are unfiltered and will continue to mature in the bottle like a true vintage Port.
Old tawnies and colheitas are a step up in quality. These are the limited-quantity wood Ports upon which many shippers pride themselves. Old tawnies, labeled as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old, are a blend of various fine-quality Ports matured in wooden cask. The year denotes the average age of the blend. Colheita Port is essentially a tawny Port produced from a single vintage and aged in wood for a minimum of seven years.
Bottle-aged Ports, on the other hand, are aged briefly in wooden casks and then bottled, unfiltered, for the remainder of their maturation. This includes single-quinta Ports, made from the unblended grapes of a single estate in a single vintage, and the king of Ports - vintage Port. These Ports are produced from the wine of a single vintage and bottled after two or two and a half years in wood. They may be a blend of wine from various vineyards or produced from a single estate (a quinta). The best vintage Ports are deeply colored, massive wines with plenty of fruit and tannin to give them longevity. They usually need at least 10 to 15 years of bottle age to mellow before drinking, although Americans have grown accustomed to drinking them right on release.
Vintage Ports are released only in the best years, when shippers announce their intent to bottle and market a particular vintage. Very few shippers declare a vintage on their own. They will discuss the quality of their wines with other houses and try and get an indication if others will follow. Recent great vintages include 1997, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985 and 1983. Superlative years prior to that include 1977, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1947, 1935, 1934 and 1927. A handful of names represent the best, regardless of the year: Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate, Graham, Dow, Warre, Quinta do Noval, Niepoort, Croft, Cockburn and Sandeman.
A top-class vintage Port can improve for many decades. In fact, bottles from the 1860s and 1870s are still lovely to drink today. All vintage Port should be decanted before serving since the wines throw a deposit in the bottle.
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